Zodwa Nyoni’s 2014 one-person play, which was first seen at West Yorkshire Playhouse, reminds me of The Jungle, a play about the Calais migrant camp by two Joes — Murphy and Robertson.
A member of the hit show’s cast, Mohamed Sarrer, lived in the camp before he managed to get to the UK. I once asked him whether there were moments on the long journey from his former home in Sudan when he felt his life was threatened. His answer was half incredulous laugh and half spoken.
“If I bring all these moments together, they would make days,” he said.
Both plays are about life in limbo. For many in the Jungle the wait was for the next chance to get to the UK while living with a level of desperation that leads parents to put their children at risk of drowning in the English Channel, as happened this week. The limbo in Nine Lives is lived in the UK by those who have reached here, but are treated harshly as a matter of policy in order to discourage other refugees from seeking sanctuary from their persecutors.
The figure at the centre of Nyoni’s play is Ishmael, who has fled Zimbabwe because of persecution suffered for being gay. He is played by the excellent Lladel Bryant, who reprises the role he created for the play’s first production.
Over this show’s uninterrupted hour Ishmael relates his life since arriving at Heathrow with the big white suitcase with which he shares the otherwise prop-less stage.
Speaking in his soft Zimbabwean brogue he describes his first encounter with British authorities who demand proof that he is gay, and therefore a genuine refugee, by describing what it is about sex with another man that he enjoys.
Immigration officers treat him with callous indifference and he is “dispersed” to a one-room slum in Leeds, where he lives on his £36 weekly allowance while waiting for his application to be processed. Inevitably he is denied and a 15-year-old-thug and his pitbull rob Ishmael of his allowance.
Yet all this amounts to a much more enjoyable evening than you think might be possible given the subject.
Nyoni’s lyrical script vividly conveys an immigrant’s impressions of British society and even its high streets which are revealed to be distinctive and exciting rather than banal thoroughfares.
And the moments where Ishmael forges tentative relationships with Yorkshire locals and experiences a fleeting taste of western freedom in a gay night club, are wonderfully conveyed by Bryant, who slips out of his Zimbabwean accent and into the broad brogue of Yorkshire with ease.
The show feels like a starting point to a bigger play. And given when it was written it might have benefited from some political heft by being linked to the government’s “hostile environment” policy which we now know was created roughly at the same time.
As with The Jungle, Nine Lives leaves you with the resilience of the human spirit but also the simplest of pleas, to treat people in the direst of circumstances with just a little kindness.